Old School 'Heap' Composting

Not everyone has an outdoor space adequate for a compost heap but if you do, investing some time and labour will be very fruitful.

Creating a compost heap is much easier than people realise.

Heap composting allows for the greatest variability of waste recyclability.

It is an age old agricultural practice and with this particular method, you can expect to produce much larger quantities of rich compost matter (when compared to other methods such as tumbler or indoor composts).

Essentially, this method is all about layering and maintenance. You layer your waste, sit back and relax (sip on some tea, make some babies), and wait for those materials to break down into a rich humus!

You won't need much to set up your heap, all you really need is adequate space, a garden fork and a tarp or plastic sheet. Depending on the ingredients in your compost heap, you can expect to create a quality compost soil from anywhere between 6 weeks to 6 months to 2 years (this is weather variable).

If you're interested in trying to attempt old school composting, read on! Get your equipment ready and your gardening gloves on!

Essential knowledge to get you started

​Heap composting can be done all year round and is suitable for gardens of all sizes. If you have the space, then you have the ability to compost, no excuse.

The advantages of heap composting? It's inexpensive (less materials involved), involves less maintenance (dump and turn essentially), increased variability of waste you can recycle, and increased compost quantity (generally because compost heaps are of a larger capacity).

​Unfortunately, it is not as easy as a dump and run. There IS a method to the madness and if you want to obtain optimal compost success, you need to understand the basic construction technique. We will delve into this soon enough, but first lets decide if this method is right for you...

Things to consider before choosing this method

Space, budget and functionality

Space - Your choosing this method because you have a quality outdoor space for a compost heap. I would choose a well drained area that gets some form of shade during the day (by this i mean a compost heap placed directly onto soil as a good choice). Essentially it doesn't matter too much where your heap is created, as long it is balanced: not too wet, not too dry....this will all come down to maintenance. If you live somewhere and the weather is quite variable, you may need to adjust your heap according to the seasons (for example elevating a tarp above the heap if it is a wet season).

Budget - Ultimately this is the cheapest method of composting as you do not require much equipment for the set up. Time/labour > Budget. 

Functionality - The purpose of a compost heap is to simplify composting processes. Generally speaking, once you have layered your matter appropriately (see below on setup), you will have to manually turn your compost heap with a garden fork on average about second weekly. This is to allow for air circulation. Apart from the turning, you will need to inspect your matter to ensure it is neither too wet or too dry. If it is too wet, you may need to add more carbon materials. If it is too dry, you may need to add more nitrogen based materials. You want your soil to be moist as a squeezed out sponge. 

The disadvantages of this method

There are advantages and disadvantages to each composting method. With a compost heap, there are some tricky issues that may need to be brainstormed along the way.

Some people are opposed to this method because of aesthetic reasons. If you ask me? when i see a compost heap in anyones backyard, i immediately give them a high five. Who cares if you have an unsightly big dirt pile underneath a plastic sheet. The rest of your garden will thank you later for it.

Wind and storms can be problematic. Too much wind and extreme weather conditions will affect your heap, as it is exposed. Compost material can roll out so you might need to be prepared for some little maintenance here and there.

Yes - there is physical labour involved. If your compost is too large, you can split the turning into sections. But moderate sized, green thumb muscles are a prerequisite.​

Unfortunately with this type of composting method, you are more likely to be subject to invasion by animals and pests. Your compost heap is not necessarily contained, if you can handle insects and small rodents, you should be fine. To tackle this issue always remember to add a layer of soil or garden waste on top of the food layers in your heap.

What you can and can't recycle

There are certain rules for which you have to abide by with any composting technique. As far as heap composting goes, the rules for recycling are pretty simple. Yes to anything organic and raw. No to anything you consider toxic or things that would leave an offensive odour after mulling in heat for a few days. 

As a general rule - you should stick to 1:2. This means 1 part nitrogen to 2 parts carbon (or 1/3 nitrogen to 2/3 carbon). The key for nitrogen based materials is green and wet. This generally includes things like kitchen food scraps and fresh grass clippings. Carbon based materials include (but not limited to) dried garden clippings, dried leaves, and branches.  For a more in-depth list of nitrogen and carbon materials, see here.

Works well

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Cooked leftovers 
  • Small green prunings/grass clippings/leaves
  • Tea bags and coffee grounds
  • Wilted/dried flowers
  • Shredded newspapers and cardboard (Including tissue paper, toilet rolls)
  • Wood chips
  • Saw dust
  • Egg shells
  • General garden waste/old potting mix
  • Human and animal hair
  • Vacuum cleaner dust

Works not so well

  • Large Bones
  • Large amounts of meat and dairy products
  • Fat and oils
  • Magazines and printed paper (These can be toxic)
  • Pet waste/faeces (Horse/chicken manure is okay)
  • Metals, Glass, plastic (Common sense, would you eat these?)

Set up - method and mixing

Like baking a cake...there is a method you should follow to ensure the best results out of your compost heap.

Once you have the right ingredients all prepared you should begin to layer your compost heap according to a CNC algorithm. Carbon, Nitrogen, Carbon. 

Choose an area with good drainage (Preferably on a soil base).

Build up from the earth placing a layer of Carbon rich items down - twigs, cardboard, leaves, sticks - you name it. A couple of inches is suffice. This layer will promote aeration and drainage. 

Nitrogen next - get those wet and green kitchen scraps, mix them up and lay those babies down.

You know what to do next. That's right - add another Carbon layer. Sticks and twigs, paper rolls, straw, saw dust, all the good stuff.

What's up next? Adding an activator is optional, try some manure or even some pee pee to get the composting process fired up. Literally, heat that shit up.

Once your done adding your top layer, give your heap a little sprinkle with water and cover with a plastic sheet or tarp. You can weigh your sheet down on the corners with something heavy such as a couple of bricks or rocks.​

Once your compost heap has kicked off, if you want to add more ingredients - you can fork these in - layering is not neccesary as the key factor to decomposition is air and you will promote this when you turn your pile. ​

SO, are you ready to get started?

Heat - Why do we need it?

Heat = Activation and decomposition.

In a good compost heap, the heat that is produced is usually hot enough to kill weeds and their seeds and fight off disease.

Your compost heap can reach temperatures of up to and between 49 - 77 degrees celsius (120 - 170 degrees fahrenheit). You should aim for a safe and optimal temperature of around 66 degrees celsius (150 degrees fahrenheit).

So what does heat tell us?​

- You are ready to turn your pile if the temperature gets too hot and exceeds the safe range or has started to cool down - use aeration to heat it up and cool it down.
- You are ready to add more ingredients when your compost has reached a steady safe temperature.
- You may need to add more nitrogen ingredients if the compost pile is not generating enough heat and you want to give it a kickstart.
- Your compost may nearly be ready if the pile does not heat up after turning and the temperature has overall started to drop.

If you want to examine heat within your compost pile, you can purchase a compost thermometer and stick it in. Your compost heat is not always uniform so be sure to test different areas and calculate the mean temperature produced. 

If you don't want to buy a thermometer, try sticking your fist in your pile. Are the temperatures different on the outside when compared to the middle of your pile? If it's hot and if you can feel the difference over a couple of weeks, you know your pile is working. 

Tips for a successful compost heap

  • If you ensure that your scraps are broken down into smaller sizes before adding them to your heap -  this will help speed up the decomposition process. 
  • Aeration, aeration, aeration - this is a very important step in maintaining your compost heap. Turning your heap every two weeks - once a month should be adequate. 
  • How will you know when your compost is ready? Your soil should be dark brown in colour, have an earthy odour and resemble a crumbly soil like texture. 
  • If your compost becomes too wet: it may become smelly. To fix this: you can try adding more carbon based scraps or alternatively add sawdust or dolomite to reduce the acidity. Ideally you want your matter as moist as a squeezed out sponge. Also note that if your heap becomes too wet, this will impact aeration which will slow down decomposition. 
  • If your compost becomes too dry: You can add more nitrogen based scraps or small amounts of water. There are bedding and insulation options you can place over the top of the heap to keep the compost insulated in colder months.
  • To speed up the process of your heap compost you can try adding an activator which is full of nutrients and micro-organisms. Horse manure works a treat too (W.T.F is an activator? see below!)

Activator: What it is and why we use it

Activator is simply a protein product that is high in nitrogen and is used for several different reasons. Primarily, it is used to break down materials high in carbon (low in nitrogen). It can also be used to warm up compost mixtures where processes are delayed because of a cool environment. 

It's important to note that unless you intend to compost a lot of high carbon materials you won't need a compost activator. Note: Balancing out imbalances in your compost heap can be achieved via alternative techniques.  

'Liquid gold'

Did you know: URINE (yes that's right, Urine!) has been well known to be used as a liquid household compost activator? It's FULL of nitrogen! It's free, natural and abundant. So if you don't find this idea too disgusting, why not give it a try?

On average, a single toilet flush will use between 4 - 9 litres of water! So think of using urine on your compost a way to save water and energy - make a positive impact on your environment.

It is Interesting to note that male urine is better than female urine as it is slightly more acidic.

If you are concerned about using your urine - don't worry - It's generally pretty safe. Urine is mostly sterile but stay away from the use of it if you are ill or have a urinary tract infection.

Remember: Balance is key - you don't want a compost heap that is too wet or nitrogen heavy. ​

Having problems with your pH?

Testing the pH of your compost soil is CRUCIAL. What do we mean by this and why?

 ​PH is a value given to the describe the acidity or alkalinity of a subject, in this case soil.

​A deranged pH level will affect the final outcome of plant growth and absorption of nutrients.

​You should be checking your soil pH at least once every two weeks. The optimal neutral pH level you should be aiming for is between 6.0 - 7.0

​If you test your soil and you find that your pH is > 7.0, this means your soil is alkaline. ​Alkaline soils have a direct impact on plant growth (stunting) and the ability for plants to absorb soil nutrients.

​​If you test your soil and you find your pH is < 7.0, this means your soil is more acidic. Acidic soil, similar to the problem of alkaline soil, will affect a plants ability to absorb nutrients and can eventually become toxic. Acidic soils will directly impact the absorption of beneficial bacteria and can leave your plants susceptible to disease and pests.

Important to note: The ph value will vary in parts of your soil due to temperature and mixture. As a general rule, it is a good idea to test the pH of various different areas of your soil and then calculate a mean pH value.

​​There are some simple techniques you can explore to fix an abnormal pH

Acidic soil solutions
Slow solutions include:
Neutralise by adding crushed egg shells
Avoid fruit scraps such as peels and pulp​
Fast solutions include:
Add agricultural lime

Alkaline soil solutions
Slow solutions include:
Neutralise by adding small amounts of peeled fruit skins mixed with damp newspaper bedding
Fast solutions include:
dd agricultural sulphur, iron sulphate, or aluminium sulphate

How to test pH

There are a multitude of cheap and effective soil tester kits available these days for pH testing. You can source these from your local nursery or hardware store or alternatively, online have some good solutions, see below!

Have some questions you want answered about outdoor composting heaps? Feel free to leave a comment below! 

If you are gifted with an outdoor space, don’t mind a bit of labour and are ready to take on a larger project…then go old school and put in the effort to create a backyard compost heap. Decomposition takes place quick and hot. Sound like fun?

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